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On Game Industry Professionalism

I’m surprised how often this comes up, but there is often a sad lack of professionalism in the game industry. It’s not all one-way, and it’s not all intentional, and it’s not all unique to this industry… but some of it is, and that causes issues throughout the hobby. Especially as some big conventions are coming up, and those often mean new contacts and new work deals, I wanted to talk about it a bit.

I’m certainly not the gatekeeper of gaming professionalism, but there are some things that seem to be common among the industry folks I look up to who are better-known, smarter, and more graceful than I am, and I do my best to emulate the. This list isn’t comprehensive or absolute – there are important things I and missing and side cases that might be rare exceptions to these principals. But in general, this is a fair baseline for what I see as the start of game industry professionalism.

Oh, and I want it to be fun to read, so it’s broken into movie quote section.

Break a Deal, Face the Wheel

No, no one will actually put a fiberglass mask on your head and send you off to die in the desert… but if you get a reputation for not doing what you have contracted and agreed to, you may end up in an allegorical desert when all the available work dries up.

Look, the industry is often brutal. Pay is too low, deadlines too short, respect too uncommon (especially among some segments of fans). Some years not only would I have made more money spending the same amount of time doing minimum wage fast food jobs, but my main reward was to be called out and attacked by people with less experience and understanding of games than I have. It can suck.

But leaving people in a lurch makes it suck more.

If you agree to do a job, and the other side holds up their end, you need to do your best to hold up your end. I have had people I thought were promising freelancers, who I took a risk on, mentored, said nice things about and introduced to other publishers, take a contract, ask me to push back the deadline by months, then stop communicating at all, then tell me they can no longer do the project at all and give me some half-assed outline in way of recompense. All while continuing to do work for other companies.

If mental health issues has you down? Yes, that’s no different that backing out of a running job because you broke a leg. You need to be up-front and honest, and tell me as soon as possible, but I get it. But do it early, be frank, and don’t immediately prove it’s not about that by taking even more work from other people. If you need a break, take a break.

But if the job you are doing for me just got pushed back to the back of your queue so often because of better work coming along that you’ve decided it’s not fun anymore, or no longer a good use of your time? Tough. You agreed to do this project. We have a contract. Do it.

You’re not just making a publishers life more difficult when you just throw a project aside. You are boosting their missed opportunity cost, adding stress, and preventing them from paying everyone else who would be involved. It’s unprofessional, and it’s way too common among way too many freelancers.

The reverse of this is ALSO true. If you tell someone you’ll publish their work, and there’s no formal timeline, and five years alter you still haven’t? You are screwing with them. And, obviously, pay what you say you will pay, when you say you will or before. Giving feedback is optional, but smart to improve the whole industry. Bad-mouthing a freelancer to other publishers for some behavior you never told THEM was an issue/ Unprofessional. Cancelling a project and just never telling people working on turnovers? Unprofessional. Sitting on a manuscript for years? Unprofessional… and I’ve been guilty of that one.

Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.

We rarely have information as crucial as the location of the One Ring, but there certainly are things you shouldn’t let the (various) Dark Lords know.

What information is exchanged between company and employee or freelancer as part of a work arrangement should be kept between those two, unless there’s a crime involved or an agreement that says otherwise or it’s become common knowledge. If you get to work on Ultimate Sentient Weapons, a major book that hasn’t been announced yet, you SHOULD NOT then use that information to write a book that does the same thing but better, and sell it before USW comes out. That’s screwing over your partner who got you that info, and it’s not cool. Similarly if a freelancer tells a publisher the freelancer is already working on something similar, the publisher should not take steps to trademark names involved, or change publishing dates, or badmouth them to damage their reputation, or change the project to cover the idea the freelance admitted to having.

Even without an NDA, don’t do this.

Once things are all out in the open, normal intellectual property rights can apply. And if the publisher is giving the info to lots of folks to do associated projects, there’s no reason not to ask if you can be included in that set of folks. But you can’t use info you were given to do a job for A Corp, then leverage it to sell a tie-in to B Corp before anyone even knows it has happened. Similarly, don’t leak files, even just to your friend Josh. Because you may trust Josh… but Josh may trust Wilhelm, and Wilhelm may trust Jerry, and Jerry may be an asshole. Don’t take the risk.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

What you do and say as a representative of yourself is your business. But if you wrote for a company’s new book, and you go to that company’s forum, and you take sole credit for things that were developed, edited, and worked on by 7 folks? Not cool. And if you badmouth it as crap the developers ruined? Not professional. And if you attack and insult customers who are annoyed? Way unprofessional.

If you can at all help it, don’t escalate conversations people who work with you are going to have to deal with. It’s like leaving a dead fish on the counter. If it’s your counter that’s gross, but you have to deal with it. If you leave it on my counter, you are making my life harder as the reward for me working with you.

Also, you will build a reputation. It will get around. Consider what you want it to be.

Be Kind. Rewind.

This industry is a meat grinder all too often. People with great talent and love of games leave both for more money, and for less stress and grief from fans.

So, try to be nice.

Yes, this is a vague hand-wave at professionalism, but give it some thought. If it takes only a tiny bit more effort to be nice to folks, why not do that? Yes, sometimes people are attacking you, or actively damaging your company or your reputation, and “nice” may not be a reasonable reply.

But if we were all nice whenever we could be? That would fix a lot of issues too.

Give more credit that you take.

Tell people when they make a positive impact on your life. Thank them.

Consider if you are being needlessly cruel in feedback. Saying you hate a game mechanic is very different from saying it’s idiotic and you don’t understand how anyone could ever think it was a good idea, and even THAT is different from saying a game’s writers are idiots who clearly only have their jobs because they are friends with the developer and the boss is so checked out he doesn’t care what gets published.

We HAVE lost people from the industry from such behavior. We’ll never stop it all, but if I can have one rock thrown at me each day or twelve, I’ll pick just one.

Self-Promotion Done Right

You can build up yourself without tearing anyone down. For example, I have a Patreon, and I’d love if you backed it.

Clinton Boomer has a Patreon. It’s awesome. You should back it too.

Liz Courts has a couple of Patreons. All worthwhile.

So does Jacob Blackmon!

I’d rather talk about how awesome these all are, and let you decide where to spend your money.

This entire post was sponsored by the Open Gaming Store. It’s awesome, too.

On Screwing Up

I screwed up recently (not a new or rare occurrence), which lead me to begin running down my mental checklist for how to handle that fact. I realized I’ve never talked about that checklist, and that lead to:

Screwing Up. Next Steps.    

Congratulations, you screwed up. Now what?

This is my general guide for when you screw up on what to do AFTER the screw up. It is born of my professional experiences in the game industry, and personal experiences as an uneducated depressive introvert with confrontation, communication, and time management problems.

In short this comes from a LOT of experience screwing up, but they are all a specific set of screw-ups. Your massive personal failures may vary, and I am not a trained or expert screw up therapist.

Step One: Accept and Acknowledge

These are two separate things, but they are pretty tightly linked. Let’s start with acceptance.

This is specifically a guide for when YOU have screwed up. Not when someone screwed something else up and you catch the blame, or when the universe screws things up and you have to find ways to fix it. The built-in framework here is for when, yeah, you screwed up.

So, you have to accept that.

Acceptance is important for a lot of reasons. First, without your own buy in that you screwed up, you won’t be able to internalize the lesson that screw up contains. Second, acting like you screwed up when you don’t believe you did leads to resentment, among other things.

I’m not here to tell you when you screwed up. Just to say you have to take a long, hard look at major failures, and decide if that’s your own fault. If no, then you need to manage the disaster with an eye towards those factors that DID cause it. But if you screwed up, you need to accept that fact.

Acknowledgement in this case means acknowledging the screw up to those effected. If you fail to do something you said you’d do, or do something that causes problems for others, you need to let them know that YOU know.

This isn’t the place for self-flagellation. The object here is not to garner sympathy, or make yourself feel worse, or make the people who are negatively impacted by your screw up feel worse. It’s just a heads-up that yes, there’s a problem, you caused it, and you know it. Doing this right is tricky. I find efforts to spin why or how you screwed up often get in the way of a clean and useful acknowledgement. Sometimes people need to know why or how, or ask for their own purposes, and that’s fine (if it’s not private, which it can be). But the idea in this acknowledgement isn’t to cover your ass against the consequences (but in some environments you might have to do that, and only you can make that call). The idea here is to bring the other people involved up to your level of information in a polite, professional, and straightforward way.

Step Two: Assess

Okay, this entire article assumes you have screwed up. That’s the premise. This is about finding out how BADLY you screwed up, and what led to the screw up.

Step two is really about baring down on step one as many times as you need to. I personally think accepting and acknowledging at least begin before assessing—admit you screwed up and let people know there’s an issue as soon as you are sure there is one. But right after that, figure out how big a problem you caused. If that calls for accepting that things are worse than you thought (or realizing it’s not that big a deal), and updating anyone else affected, then do that. You need the information to continue this checklist.

Step Three: Mitigate

Nope, the steps aren’t all A words.

Now that you have an idea how big a problem you caused and how you caused it, see if there’s anything reasonable you can do to fix it. What’s reasonable is going to vary, and I can’t really give you hard rules for that. Small problems, or screw ups that it is easier for someone else to fix, or screw ups so massive or personal that anything you try only makes things worse, certainly do happen. You need to see if you can fix it, and if not can you make things better, and if not what can you do to minimizing making things even worse.

Those are of course, all super vague. Lemme give some examples.

If you are working on a project for someone and you know for certain you are going to miss a deadline, you have likely screwed up. If you accept and acknowledge that fact, and assessed the screw up, you should have contacted the person you are to turn it over to and let them know you are going to miss the deadline.

The next question is, now what?

If you are only going to be a little late and the person you are working with can handle that, then mitigating is making sure you hit your new deadline. If you can’t finish the thing at all, you may need to figure out what you can do, and see if that’s helpful. And certainly, you don’t keep hiding or obfuscating that the project is going to be late in the hope you can finish it before you get pinned down. That’s not mitigation.

This may include some hard conversations with people you have let down. Again, straightforward and professional behavior is, in my experience, your best option. But you need to mitigate your screw up with appropriate levels of effort. Don’t cause more problems or become obsessed over the great lengths needed to fix a minor screw up. You can’t let even moderate screw ups take over your life. And if you can’t mitigate the damage you have done, you need to accept AND ACKNOWLEDGE for that too. People may be disappointed or even angry, but they deserve the truth.

Step Four: Learning

Most of my own screw up result from behavior I could have avoided if I had been smart or forethoughtful enough. As a result, after I realize I have screwed something up and done what I can to fix it, I want to examine what I did wrong. Making mistakes is human. Making the same mistake over and over is dumb.

Keep in mind, you often won’t get this right. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson away from an issue, or think your error was unique to a specific circumstance without recognize an underlying behavior that applies in a broader context than you think. Making a mistake about how you made a mistake is frustration, but it’s going to happen. So when you screw up, be sure to examine not only that specific calamity, but anything similar that you’ve screwed up before. In some cases, you’ll find you missed a larger lesson, and that’s your opportunity to finally learn it.

Take Away

None of this can fix the fact you screwed up, and while that’s unfortunate it’s also okay. Everyone screws up from time to time. Hopefully you’ll screw up less often than I do, and you won’t need a mental checklist of how to handle such situations. But because everyone screws up occasionally, I have found that when you tackle you own screw ups with honesty, clear communication, and an effort to fix both the issues you cause and the underlying problems that lead to the screw up, people are generally understanding. Not everyone, of course, but you can never control the behavior of other people. You can only control what you do, and imperfectly at that. Which is what makes handling your own screw ups in an adult and reasonable manner so important.

My Patreon

Changing topics entirely, I want to let folks who haven;t read the end of one of my articles before know I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.

Adventurer-Formal

Quick story, as Gen Con looms.
When I went to interview for a staff job at Wizards of the Coast in 1999 (they flew me from OK to Seattle), I wore a suit. Slacks, dress shirt, tie, jacket, black shoes, the whole 9 yards.
One of the things everyone made VERY clear to me during those interviews was that WotC had a casual atmosphere, and there wasn’t really a dress code at work. I felt overdressed.
OTOH, I a: got the job and b: later heard that another candidate showed up in a fast food uniform. No one ever told me that made a difference… but no one said it didn’t. And one person tad me that the fact I showed up in a suit proved I was taking the job seriously. I have never regretted wearing a suit to that.
When I went to a dinner at GenCon that Sword & Sorcery was having to see who they wanted to work on the EverQuest Tabletop RPG, I wore a polo and jeans. I didn’t feel either overdressed or underdressed, and I got a lot of work from that meeting. I have never regretted wearing a polo to that.
I always recommend looking professional and tidy, and give the impression you take every opportunity professionally and seriously. If you later get told you can dress down, feel free.
But first impression really can count.